A Happier Holiday

Last year’s Thanksgiving was epic.

We were celebrating the first Thanksgiving without my grandmother, who died six months earlier.  There were six adults, seven kids, and three dogs crammed into a three bedroom cabin.  A vicious stomach bug made its way through most of the kids and some the adults over the course of the weekend.  I fought with my mother and left in tears.  A brief visit with my in-laws hit a snag when my son began vomiting uncontrollably, then concluded with a fight with my pre-teen daughter about where to sit in the car.  I lost my temper and screamed in front of my wife, our children, and my sister-in-law, then ended the weekend riding in the way back of the family van, squashed between suitcases and my fuming daughter, leaning forward every twenty minutes or so to hold a plastic bag for my son while he puked into it.

Like I said, it was epic.  It was so bad that when co-workers asked me if I’d had a nice Thanksgiving weekend, I couldn’t lie.  I looked each person in the eye and said, “No.  But thank you for asking.”

I didn’t realize the impact of that weekend for almost a year.  I joked about it, enjoying the story as if I hadn’t actually been part of it.  I chalked the experience up to simple bad luck and did what I usually do with a painful experience: I pushed it way down deep into my belly and held it there, a knot of discomfort that dulled slightly with each passing day.

I started to notice something was wrong about three weeks before Halloween.  As our neighbors put out festive decorations and my kids talked about costume choices and trick-or-treating, all I wanted to do was complain; the decorations were stupid, candy was too expensive, the Halloween festival didn’t have any decent gluten-free food.  I was thrilled that the kids would be with their dads on Halloween night, but severe storms delayed trick-or-treating until my night with the kids.  “All I want is for Halloween to be over!” I groaned to my wife.

Once Halloween was over and the discussion turned to Thanksgiving plans, things got worse.  I began to feel nauseated every time Thanksgiving was mentioned in conversation.  As the weeks passed without confirmed plans for the big day, I became more and more anxious, until my wife and I had a long conversation and I realized something: I was afraid of Thanksgiving.

More specifically, I was afraid that the holiday would be less than perfect, and that any problem or hiccup in the plan would be my fault.  I was so focused on protecting myself from another painful experience that I was willing to spend the entire weekend holed up in my house alone, waiting for it to be over.

The trouble is that there is always another holiday, another gathering filled with expectations and hopes and memories of holidays past, with the possibility that something (or everything) will go wrong.  My struggle actually had nothing to do with the holiday; it was about that hard knot in my stomach, my feeble attempt to avoid dealing with the pain that found me anyway.  It’s as if I was holding a door closed with one hand against gale force winds, and finally my arm just gave out.

So I opened the door.  I acknowledged my pain by sharing my fears with my wife, and I was reminded that pain loses its strength, its hold on me, when I speak it out loud to someone I trust.  We then made our Thanksgiving plans together, carefully negotiating our wants and needs so I felt empowered for the first time in months.  The nausea disappeared.

I am pleased to share that Thanksgiving 2013 went smoothly.  I enjoyed delicious food and watched my wife revel in holiday traditions with her beloved family.  I spent time with my children and no one threw up or screamed at each other.  It was perfect because I was there, in the moment, and the fear wasn’t in charge of my experience.  There was nothing to shove down, no door to hold closed this time.

What I needed most a year ago was to know, in the depths of my soul, that the bad stuff that happened wasn’t my fault.  I am not bad, and I am not the cause of everyone else’s suffering.  I am beginning to believe that might actually be true, and for that, I am thankful.

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